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Stress in pets: What to look out for

We all experience stress in our lives and our companion animals are no different. Often, animals feel stressed when they are struggling to cope with change, which may include feeling unwell or when an important need is not being met.

Unlike people, our cats and dogs can’t tell us what the problem is, so we need to look out for changes in their behaviour that may indicate underlying stress. It’s important to recognise these signs because, as well as reducing their quality of life, chronic stress can lower immunity and lead to a range of behavioural and health problems.

Recognising signs of stress is not always easy. Some of these signs can mimic normal behaviours. For example: Dogs yawn when they feel tired, but yawning is also a way some dogs may calm themselves when feeling overwhelmed. Many signs that may indicate stress can also be caused by a medical condition. Some further examples can include things like; changes in eating, toileting, grooming, activity levels and personality. This is why you should always seek professional advice from your veterinarian about how to manage the source of stress that is affecting your furry friend.

Common signs of stress in cats and dogs

The following are some of the common signs of stress in cats and dogs, but this is by no means a complete list. It’s also important to be aware of changes in body language that alert us to acute stress in our pets. Examples include: crouching, hiding, flattened ears or back arching in cats and looking away, showing the whites of the eye, panting, hypersalivation and hiding in dogs.

Excessive grooming

Both cats and dogs may over-groom to relieve stress, although this can present differently – cats often pull out fur leaving bald spots, whereas dogs tend to lick or chew their front legs. For both species, this behaviour could lead to skin disease and may also be due to underlying allergies (including flea allergy), pain or other medical problems. Prompt veterinary treatment is essential to identify and manage the causes of excessive grooming.

Changes in vocalisation

Cats who are acutely stressed will often let you know by howling, hissing, growling or meowing in a plaintive manner but many just become very still and silent (the freeze response). These are signs that are easy to recognise but they may become an ongoing problem if the source of stress is not removed. For example: hissing and growling directed towards other cats in the household can occur when cats are competing for resources or when a new cat has been introduced, or if the cat is stressed about something else (redirected aggression as a consequence of stress). As a guide, to keep your cats happy and stress-free at home, you will need to provide each cat with at least two choices for litter trays, food and water bowls, and three choices for scratching surfaces and resting/hiding places. And if your cat hisses at you, take care not to overcrowd him or her by too much petting. If there is no obvious reason for your cat’s changes in vocalisation, a trip to the vet is in order to rule out any source of pain or illness.

Excessive barking in dogs can occur for many reasons, but where stress is the culprit, dogs who bark excessively are typically responding to boredom, lack of stimulation and often separation anxiety. If your dog is barking too much, make sure you are providing them with enough daily exercise, enrichment and company. Dogs are highly social species and do not thrive when left alone for hours at a time. If excessive barking is due to separation anxiety, seek veterinary treatment to break the cycle and prevent your dog from engaging in associated behaviours such as self-harm.

Inappropriate urination

Cats commonly urinate outside the litter tray as a reaction to stress from some change in their lives or because there is some issue with the litter material, the type of litter tray, its location or cleanliness. Medical problems, however, can cause the same behaviour, and may include a painful urinary tract or kidney disease or some condition that reduces their mobility. Cats who show any unusual urination should be assessed by a veterinarian, especially if they have difficulty urinating; this can represent a life-threatening blockage. Dogs are also prone to toileting in the house in response to stress, particularly separation anxiety, and they may urinate more frequently when anxious. As for cats, if you notice any changes in toileting behaviour, seek veterinary advice in the first instance.


Cats who scratch on the carpet or furniture are not trying to be annoying! Scratching is a normal behaviour for cats, allowing them to condition their nails and mark their territory. It can also be a way to express frustration, anxiety or even excitement. The key is to make sure your cat has a variety of scratching posts that allow your cat to fully extend themselves, are made of different materials and are in different locations. They must also have lots of opportunities for exercise and other forms of stimulation. Destructive behaviour in dogs is a common sign of stress, with digging up the garden being high on the list of owner complaints. Digging is another normal behaviour, but many dogs dig up the garden in response to boredom or separation anxiety, which may also involve attempts to escape and destroying furniture inside the house. If your dog behaves destructively, make changes to ensure that he or she is getting enough exercise, company and stimulation (such as chew toys) and seek advice from a veterinary behavioural specialist if the problem continues.

Be alert of the signs of stress in pets

Being alert to the signs of stress in pets can help you to keep your cat or dog happy and well. Whilst they are unable to tell you what is distressing them, your knowledge of their usual behaviour will allow you to identify changes that may indicate stress, illness or both. The safest course of action is to seek veterinary advice in the first instance.

Another thing to consider for your pet dog or cat is having a pet insurance policy, to cover them in case of an eligible accident or illness, which can help provide you with the security of knowing you can seek veterinary advice promptly should your pet require.

Image of Dr Rosemary Elliot

Dr Rosemary Elliot 

Dr Rosemary studied veterinary science at the University of Sydney after having established her career as a clinical psychologist, and has qualifications of BVSc (Hons), MANZCVS (Animal Welfare), MPsych (Clin), BA (Hons) as well as previously establishing her career as a clinical psychologist. Her experiences during veterinary training fostered an ambition to focus directly on animal welfare and ethics, with a particular interest in animal sentience and the human-animal bond. Currently working in small animal practice, Dr Rosemary combines her psychology background and veterinary skills to contribute to and promote animal welfare, and regularly contributes quality content to RSPCA Pet Insurance's Pet Care blog.